kanazawa

From Sendai, I headed to a completely different place - Kanazawa, a city on the Hokuriku coast known for its well-preserved historical districts and pretty gardens (particularly Kenroku-en). As the regional centre of the ruling classes, it used to be a very wealthy city in the Edo period, and traditional arts and crafts flourished. Because it hasn’t been destroyed in major natural disasters or wartime bombings, many of the old buildings remain intact, including samurai residences, geisha houses and parts of the old castle.

Before I made it to Kanazawa, however, I had to make a quick stop at Oomiya, a commuter town in Saitama slightly north of Tokyo. I’d never actually set foot in Saitama before, so this was interesting in its own way. I forgot my UK->JP adapter in the hostel in Sendai and realised it wouldn’t be easy to find one in Kanazawa, because there aren’t any big electronics shops near the station, whereas there was a huge Donki right next to Oomiya station. After finding the precious adapter, I spent an hour or so walking around the station area waiting for the next shinkansen to Kanazawa.

I arrived in Kanazawa late in the afternoon, left my luggage in the hostel, and went for a walk in the nearby Higashi Chaya-gai ‘tea district’. There are three of these historical tea districts remaining in Kanazawa; they used to be designated entertainment districts in the Edo period, and currently house geisha museums, cafés and souvenir shops, tea ceremony venues and the like. Everything shuts pretty early, so it was already quiet by the time I got there, but I enjoyed just walking around taking in the atmosphere.

Municipal elections are held soon across Japan, and that means campaigning vans - an unexpected nuisance in Japan. Although people here are generally polite and quiet, candidates in election season get pretty crazy with their loudspeaker-equipped vans, driving around from very early until quite late in both commercial and residential districts being noisy (yesterday evening, I was reading in a café when one of these vans started driving past very slowly and making an ungodly amount of noise, leading to the employees just shutting the doors and windows with a resigned sigh). Usually they’re just repeating their name in a weird form of self-introduction, not even talking about their election agenda or anything interesting. It’s definitely one of the most annoying aspects of life here, but at least elections don’t happen all the time. (I’m all for political participation, of course, but there must be better ways to do this!).

Anyway, on my evening walk, I didn’t encounter any annoying election vans - just posters. I saw some inviting stairs going up a hill, and decided to follow them, which turned out to be a good decision. The stairs led to a pretty temple, and I climbed on the platform of its giant bell, from where I could see beyond the old district to the modern, glittering centre of Kanazawa.

I finished my evening walk by soaking in a local sento, Kuwana-yu. I’ve been walking a lot on this trip (averaging 20,000-30,000 steps a day), and my feet are getting a bit tired, so their mineral onsen felt very refreshing. As expected, there were only old ladies bathing besides me, and they took interest and wanted to have a conversation. I don’t mind chatting with obaachans in bath houses, so it was fun.

From the bath, I went to a nearby Chinese restaurant (Marichou-K), which served an interesting soymilk-based raamen. In place of mincemeat, the owner used barley grains, which actually tasted really good and gave it a nice texture! It was surprisingly refreshing and delicious. I had dinner there the next evening, too - veg mapo tofu, which was very spicy and tasty.

While walking to the restaurant, I also found out I’d been finally assigned to a college in Oxford (St Antony’s). It’s not the most historical one, but it’s located right next to the Japanese Institute and is very specialised in area studies/politics/iR, so it seems like a pretty good place to be. It’s nice to finally know where I’ll be spending the next academic year! To celebrate this, I bought some plum wine from the konbini on my way back to the hostel (I’ll use any excuse for umeshu!).

Illuminated cherry blossoms by the river

The next morning, I went to find breakfast in the lively Oomichou market, which was located near the hostel. They had all sorts of fresh ingredients and prepared food on sale - a lot of seafood, but also fruit, vegetables, pastries, tofu.. I bought some locally-made yuba tofu, pink grapefruit slices and yellow Orin apples, all with very good prices. I’ve tried supermarket-bought yuba before and disliked it, but this time I found myself really enjoying the chewy texture, thinking it reminded me of kouya-tofu (which I love) a bit. I guess there is a massive difference between freshly made and shelved tofu.

From the market, I headed to Kenroku-en, one of the most famous gardens in Japan. The weather was absolutely perfect - sunny and warm but not too hot, so I could wear a nice summer dress but not become an exhausted and sweaty mess just from being outside, which is what summer here is basically like. Spring is really the perfect time to travel around here. The nice weather also coaxed a little snake out of its hiding place - it just slithered onto the path from some bushes. It was kind of cute.

I walked around the gardens for a while, just enjoying both its beauty and the amazing weather. I also crossed over to the Kanazawa shrine next to the gardens; within its grounds is the famous 金城霊澤 (‘Kinjou reitaku’), the well that gave the city its name (‘Kanazawa’ means ‘Marsh of gold’) according to a popular legend. The legend goes that a peasant was once digging for potatoes in a well and accidentally discovered flakes of gold. To this day, Kanazawa is particularly famous for its gold leaf crafts. Folk tales are folk tales, but I enjoyed visiting the well and throwing a 5 yen coin in it for some luck.

From the gardens, I walked to the nearby Kanazawa castle. I’m not that interested in castles, but I wanted to visit a small garden called Gyokusen Inmaru-teien on the grounds. It was worth the walk through the grounds - the three-dimensional appearance created by the level differences make this garden pretty fascinating to look at.

From the castle, I walked towards the DT Suzuki museum, marveling at the snowy mountaintops in the distance. The Hokuriku region is largely mountainous, and it would be nice to come back some day with more time to explore the rural areas. As is the case with most of the places I’m visiting this trip, I’m only really seeing surface glimpses, but even that is better than nothing.

The DT Suzuki museum is interesting, because its form is very faithful to its content - dedicated to the philosopher largely accredited for introducing Zen Buddhism to the West, the museum is designed to encourage contemplation. It was a very refreshing space.

From the museum, I kept walking south towards Nishi Chaya-gai, another tea district I thought might be interesting to visit. The walk through quiet residential districts was pretty long, and when I got there, I was a bit disappointed to see this Chaya-gai was actually just one street instead of a district. There wasn’t that much to see or do there, so I just headed back towards the town centre.

On the way back: more distant mountains, a shio-daifuku (mochi filled with sweet red bean paste and salted beans) from the Oomichou market for a quick energy recharge, and coffee + manga break at a lovely café called Curio Espresso. My feet were so tired after this day! I hope they’ll make it in one piece til the end of the trip.

The next morning, I took it easy and had breakfast at the Oomichou market, followed by another coffee at Curio and a small stroll around Higashi Chaya-gai (I couldn’t resist buying some blotting paper with tiny gold leaf chips as a souvenir for myself..). Around noon, I took the Thunderbird train (what a name!) down to Kyoto.